The Heavenly Host

A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: "Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace to men of good will!" (Luke 2:13, 14)

Each year, as we prepare to celebrate Christmas, we read many prophecies that were given to prepare mankind for the Lord's coming. A few selected phrases will serve to bring them to mind.

He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel.

I shall see Him but not now. I shall behold Him but not near.

The scepter shall not depart out of Judah until Shiloh comes.

He bowed the heavens and came down.

And many others. Each of these prophecies was given through the agency of the angels, for all communication between God and mankind takes place by means of the angels. Our word "angel" comes from the Greek word "aggelia" which means "messenger." We read from the Arcana:

For in order that the message may come to man … the Lord makes use of the ministry of angels, filling them with the Divine, and lulling the things which are their own; so that at the time they do not know but that they themselves are Jehovah. In this way the Divine of Jehovah, which is in the highest things, passes down into the lowest of nature, in which lowest is man in respect to sight and hearing (AC 1925).

In the New Church we speak openly and with confidence about angels. We feel close to angels because we know so much about them, and because we know that one day we too will be angels. Today, as our thoughts and our most tender affections turn towards the story of the Lord's birth on earth, let us pay particular attention to the important role that the angels played in Jesus Christ's birth.

Angelic societies descended into the world of spirits where they met with men in the world who had been prepared for the meeting by having their spiritual senses awakened by the Lord. In this way they were able to make a more direct, sensible approach to mankind, and deliver their messages more effectively, for example when:

But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. {17} "He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, 'to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,' and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord." {18} And Zacharias said to the angel, "How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well advanced in years." {19} And the angel answered and said to him, "I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and was sent to speak to you and bring you these glad tidings. (Luke 1:13, 17-19)

Then the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. {11} "For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:10-11)

The angel did not do anything or say anything from himself. He was filled with the Divine presence of Jehovah Himself, and yet his presence was entirely necessary for the thing to happen. To think of an illustration from the world, the angelic heaven is like the system of wires and transformers that carry electricity from the power plant to our homes. The wires and transformers are in themselves inert – but there could be no distribution of electric power without them. All forms of energy, even spiritual energy, must flow through something.

So far we have been speaking of the things the angels did to assist the Lord in His coming during a period of thousands of years before the actual event took place in time. Let us now turn our attention to the assistance that the angels gave at the time of the Incarnation itself.

The first event in the New Testament where angels play a key role is the annunciation to Zacharias in the temple (Luke 1:13-20) where he is given a message from the Divine that in spite of his and his wife's advancing age, they were to be the parents of a boy who was to be named John, and who would become a prophet. Zacharias could not have lived if the Lord Himself had appeared to him. It was absolutely essential that the message be passed down through the heavens and accommodated to his particular state in that time and place.

The New Testament speaks of the Lord as both the Son of Man and the Son of God because of His dual nature before He was fully glorified. When reference is made to the Son of Man, it refers to the Lord as to the human, or the Truth, while when reference is made to the Son of God, it refers to the Divine Itself, or the Divine Love. When Jesus Christ was in the World, in the human, He was the Word, the Divine truth personified, or as it says in John, "the Word made flesh." And yet at the same time it was not apparent from merely looking at the infant Jesus Christ, that He was God the Creator. The Divinity within Him had to be hidden so that men's freedom not to believe in Him could be preserved (See AC 4391). Is this not an exact parallel to the Word itself which contains the Divine Truth itself in such a form that it is a source of comfort, strength and information to those who believe it to be the Word of God, and yet it can also, to those who do not wish to believe, appear to be just a book about ancient peoples? The Heavenly Doctrines teach:

As to each and all things, the Word has descended from the Lord… In its descent it has clothed itself with forms adapted to apprehension in the three Heavens, and at last with a form for the apprehension of man… (AC 6221)

The parallel does not end there, for just as the Word comes to Man from God by means of the angelic heavens, so the Lord Himself "bowed the heavens and came down" (Psalm 18:9), by passing through the angelic heavens and taking on a clothing of their humanity, their characteristics, their nature so that by the time the Holy Spirit was to enter into the interiors of Mary's mind it was in a form suited to do so.

A key event in the process of incarnation was the appearance of the angel Gabriel to Mary. In order to understand this better, we need to remember that except for the appearance of the angel to Zacharias (which Mary probably did not know about at the time), there had not been an angelic visitation in Israel in 400 years. We know that the promise of a Messiah was dear to every Hebrew heart, and so we must assume that Mary, like other Hebrew women, longed for the coming of the Messiah, and at the same time hoped that He would be born to her. So in a sense, when Gabriel appeared to her, she had been prepared by her upbringing as to know of the Messianic prophecy, and perhaps to hope that this very thing would happen to her.

The angel carried the Divine message to her – but more than that, the angel asked Mary questions, and listened to the replies, for the most important thing about this message was that the invitation to become the natural mother of the Lord was received with understanding and with rational consent, for we know that nothing can be truly one's own unless it is received in freedom. Mary listened to the angel, considered, and willingly accepted her mission, and so the Holy Spirit was received in the interiors of her mind in freedom, there to continue the process of clothing itself with the materials of this world.

Joseph was also visited by an angel in a dream. He was in the extremely difficult position of discovering his betrothed wife to be pregnant. He could have submitted to jealous rage and had her stoned for what he thought was her sin – for Joseph knew that the baby could not be his because they had not yet come together. What other explanation could there be but that Mary had sinned with another man. However, Joseph truly loved her and wished her no harm, and when the angel came to him with the Divine message regarding the special child she was carrying, he was eager and willing to believe that message. Once again, an angel was called to bring a message of peace and order to earth – and it was eagerly received, for we know that Joseph happily took Mary to be his wife, and raised the child as his own.

Another important use that the angels performed was to guide the Wise Men to the Lord's place of birth. The New Testament tells us that they saw the star while they were "in the east," that is, in Syria. There were scholars in Syria who still knew many things from the Ancient Church, that is, they knew something of the science of correspondences. Thus they were able to read the various prophecies that had been given in the Ancient Word and the Old Testament and understand what they meant. They knew to look for a star, and when that star appeared at a certain point in the heavens it was a signal that the Messiah had been born on earth.

Although the modern countries of Israel and Syria have a common border, in those days it was not a simple thing to travel even those distances, and so careful preparations has to be made. So, once the star was seen it still took some time for the Wise Men to actually arrive in Jerusalem asking for the newborn king.

The world has provided many theories as to what the Star of Bethlehem was. Astronomers have not found evidence of a celestial event that might explain such a bright, unusual star. Some have supposed that the Star was a comet, or a meteor, or some other natural event. Sometimes there are newspaper articles that suggest that if Venus is close to the moon and will be unusually bright, that perhaps it is the same event that the Wise Men saw as the Star of Bethlehem. But scripture records that no one other than the wise men in Syria saw or recorded the presence of the Star. Even Herod's own wise men had not seen it.

Can you imagine that Herod and his advisers did not immediately rush out of the palace to look for the Star themselves as soon as they heard the news from the Wise Men? And can you imagine that if Herod had been able to see the Star himself that he would have sent others to search for the child? Not only that, unlike natural objects, this star moved in such a way as to lead them from Syria first to Jerusalem, and then went from there to stand over the spot where the young child actually was. That is indeed an unusual star.

Once again, the Heavenly Doctrines, and our knowledge of the use of angels in the process of incarnation, makes things much clearer. We read from the Apocalypse Explained:

The star appeared to those from the east because the Lord is the east; and because they had knowledge respecting the Lord's coming from representatives that were with them, the star appeared and went before them, first to Jerusalem, which represented the church itself in respect to doctrine and in respect to the Word, and from there to the place where the infant Lord lay. (AE 422)

That "stars" signify the knowledge of good and truth, is from the appearance in the spiritual world; for there the Lord appears as a sun, and angels from afar off as stars. (AE 72)

Thus it should be clear that the Star of Bethlehem was not a natural object of any kind, but rather an angelic society made visible to the spiritual eyes of certain men whose love and regard for the truth in the Ancient documents made it possible for them to receive this special and important message.

And finally, there was the angel who announced the Lord's birth to the shepherds. While there is nothing is specifically said in the Word to link the two events, some people find comfort and delight in the thought that the angelic society that appeared to the shepherds was the same society that was at that very moment guiding the Wise Men to the Lord's place of birth. In any case, an angelic society did come to the shepherds to announce the Lord's birth, appearing at first as a single angel proclaiming with joy the news that was to echo down the ages, the most beautiful message ever to come to mankind from heaven: "Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord." Unable to withhold their joy any longer, the whole society – an army of angels – came into the view of the shepherds in a spectacular vision of heavenly joy.

So, as we return home to prepare ourselves for the celebration of Christmas with our families, and to reflect on the miracle that God Himself took on a human form on our earth, let us also remember the important part that the angels played in the Christmas story. Let us go home, and live our lives in such a way that our every action and deed will proclaim the angelic message: "Glory to God in the highest, and peace to men of good will." AMEN.

First Lesson: Luke 2:1-20

(Luke 2:1-20) And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. {2} This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. {3} So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. {4} Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, {5} to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. {6} So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. {7} And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. {8} Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. {9} And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. {10} Then the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. {11} "For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. {12} "And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger." {13} And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: {14} "Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace [to men of] goodwill!" {15} So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, "Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us." {16} And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. {17} Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. {18} And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds. {19} But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. {20} Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them. Amen.

Second Lesson: AE 422 (port.)

AE 422:[20] In ancient times there was a church in many kingdoms of Asia, as in the land of Canaan, in Syria and Assyria, in Arabia, Ethiopia, Egypt, Chaldea, in Tyre and Sidon, and elsewhere; but the church with them was a representative church, for in all the particulars of their worship, and in every one of their statutes, spiritual and celestial things, which are the internals of the church, were represented, and in the highest sense the Lord Himself was represented.

These representatives in worship and statutes remained with many even to the Lord's coming, and thence there was a knowledge of His coming; as can be seen from the predictions of Balaam, who was from Syria, and who prophesied of the Lord in these words:- I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but not nigh; there shall arise a Star out of Jacob, and a Scepter shall rise out of Israel (Num. xxiv. 17).

That this knowledge was afterwards preserved is evident from this, that certain wise men from the east, when the Lord was born saw a star from the east, which they followed, which is thus described in Matthew:- In the days of Herod the king wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, where is He that is born King of the Jews? for we saw His star in the east, and have come to worship Him; and lo, the star which they saw in the east went before them till it came and stood over where the young child was (ii. 1,2,9).

The star appeared to those from the east because the Lord is the east; and because they had knowledge respecting the Lord's coming from representatives that were with them, the star appeared and went before them, first to Jerusalem, which represented the church itself in respect to doctrine and in respect to the word, and from there to the place where the infant Lord lay.

Moreover, a "star" signifies the knowledges of good and truth, and in the highest sense the knowledge respecting the Lord. And because the Orientals had such knowledges they were called "sons of the east." Amen.